(New York) – The Cambodian government’s politically-motivated prosecutions of six human rights defenders are part of a campaign to curtail domestic and international human rights monitoring in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today. The cases, which show clear involvement by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), target veteran professionals of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) and the Cambodia Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (COHCHR).

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen looks up from his smartphone at a ceremony in Phnom Penh on February 25, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

“No one should mistake these prosecutions for anything other than Prime Minister Hun Sen’s effort to undo decades of work by Cambodian groups and the UN to promote the human rights of all Cambodians,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “To ensure the future of human rights work in Cambodia, donors and the UN as a whole should stand together against Cambodian government legal actions and other manoeuvers aimed to intimidate and clamp down on Cambodia’s courageous human rights advocates.”

On May 2, 2016, an investigating judge of the Phnom Penh court filed charges of “bribery of a witness” against ADHOC staffers Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, and Lim Mony. He also charged former ADHOC staffer Ny Chariya, now a deputy secretary-general of Cambodia’s National Election Committee, and Son Saly of the COHCHR, with being accomplices.

All except Son Saly had been in police custody since April 28, and the judge has ordered them detained pending further investigation and possible indictment for trial. An arrest warrant has been issued for Son Saly even though as a UN employee he enjoys immunity from legal action for conduct of his duties.

In a speech on May 1, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that Son Saly and others involved in bribing a witness would go to jail, and that Saly’s immunity as a UN employee was irrelevant, proclaiming “even if there is immunity, jail is a must.”

“Bribery of a witness” is set out under article 548 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code as “the direct or indirect giving of a gift, offer, promise, or interest to a witness in order (1) not to testify; (2) to provide false testimony.” The offense is punishable by five to ten years’ imprisonment. Alleged accomplices face the same punishment.

The case arises out of ADHOC providing human rights advice and assistance to Khom Chandaraty, widely known as Srey Mom. She and her family approached ADHOC for help on March 9 after she was “invited” for questioning by the Counter-Terrorism Directorate of the government’s Central Directorate for Security, which is headed by Lt. Gen. Dy Vicchea, a member of the CPP Central Committee and Hun Sen’s son-in-law. The summons did not concern any alleged terrorist activity but asked Srey Mom to provide clarifications about a purported surreptitiously-made recording of a conversation between her and Kem Sokha, acting leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. The recording supposedly demonstrated that she and Kem Sokha were involved in an extra-marital affair. On March 11, when questioned by counter-terrorism officers, she denied all allegations. On March 18, she received a second summons, this time from the Phnom Penh court prosecution, to reply to the accusation she had lied to the Counter-Terrorism unit and also allegations that her relationship with Kem Sokha was one of prostitution.

Srey Mon continued to seek assistance from ADHOC. She said the tapes were faked, she had had no affair with Kem Sokha, was being intimidated by the authorities, and was suffering livelihood difficulties, according to records released by the group. As it routinely does for those approaching it as victims of government abuses, ADHOC in this instance provided Srey Mom with a small sum of money for expenses, including to help to allow her to attend court, and assigned a lawyer for her. On April 19, when she appeared with her lawyer before the prosecution, she reversed her denial of having an affair with Kem Sokha. On April 22, she issued an open letter alleging that the four ADHOC staffers and UN employee Son Saly had enticed her to lie to the authorities by sticking to her original story and suggested that she should leave Cambodia.

On April 23, the Ministry of Justice, which has a controlling influence over the Cambodian judiciary, cited Srey Mom’s letter and “condemned unreservedly the law-violating conduct” of ADHOC and COHCHR and called for “the competent authorities” to “take the most vigorous legal measures” against them. ADHOC publicly denied any wrongdoing and distributed internal records backing up its contention that it had acted entirely in accordance with legal and professional standards for human rights work.

On April 25, the five current and former ADHOC staffers were summonsed to present themselves for questioning on April 27 and 28 by the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), which has judicial police authority to investigate allegations of bribing a witness. It is headed by CPP Central Committee member and long-term Hun Sen confidant Om Yentieng. On April 28, the ACU placed the five in custody, and on May 1, it brought them before the Phnom Penh court prosecution. While in ACU custody, they were not given access to legal counsel.

Article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides that governments shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection for human rights defenders against “any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary actions” related to their efforts to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that the critical test for human right work worldwide is whether it is aimed at “acting in support of victims of human rights violations,” including by providing those who may be victims of human rights violations with counselling and other assistance.

“The human rights defenders aren’t facing an independent, impartial court but a ruling party-controlled judiciary via which the prime minister is determined to send a message that no rights advocate is safe from politically-motivated prosecution,” Adams said. “This is a situation that donors and the UN should publicly object to and resolutely reject.”